This is another sample entry from our Q&A Treasure Chest, a rich database of detailed case Q&A that our SAFM Semester students enjoy unlimited access to throughout their studies. Unlimited access is included as part of our Core 101 Semester program.
A question from a Practitioner
Hi Tracy, Over the last few years I’ve noticed a few gray hairs, but interestingly, I’ve also noticed that several (but unfortunately not all) of my gray hairs have actually turned back to brown (tips are gray, roots are brown). Do you know what might cause this and is it possible to reverse gray hairs through diet or supplements? (That would definitely excited some of my patients!) Is this dynamic related to any other diseases?
What a great observation for you! Certainly, it’s possible. Hair is colored with pigment, melanin, in a similar way to our skin, produced by cells called melanocytes which do indeed “wear out” with age due to a variety of factors (e.g. oxidative stress, hypochlorhydria, poor protein/mineral intake, malabsorption of nutrients, chronic or acute stress, hypothyroid state). Those cells need nourishment for natural functioning just like all other cells in our body, and our nourishment affects how quickly we lose our natural hair color (and of course genetics play a role here too). Hair is naturally white, and our genetics and nutrition give it a certain color. We typically produce an enzyme called catalase that prevents the intracellularly-generated hydrogen peroxide (yes!) from keeping our hair white. As we age, we can produce less and less catalase and less and less melanin – for a variety of reasons. This is a lay write-up that may be interesting to clients who are working on this as a wellness focus area and using their hair as a key “cue” of wellness: https://www.caseyresearch.com/the-cure-for-gray-hair-and-heart-disease/#Roots
Most often either zinc and/or copper deficiency is involved in premature graying, and thus their repletion could certainly reverse the trend. Catalase is a zinc-dependent enzyme. These types of mineral deficiencies may be the result of nutrient-poor food choices or poor digestion and/or malabsorption in the gut. The body needs much more zinc than copper, so it’s important that our intake be balanced appropriately. This can be a challenge for vegans in particular whose diets are notoriously high in copper (especially from soybeans and nuts) but much lower in zinc (pumpkin seeds are the plant food with the best zinc: copper ratio).
Melanin is a protein that requires tyrosine (and iron as a cofactor) from our diet (phenylalanine is the essential amino acid from which we make tyrosine). Another key nutrient for hair cell health is Vitamin B12 which (due to an epidemic of issues with stomach acid and widespread use of PPI antacid drugs) is a common insufficiency. Again, repletion could return color to the strands. We know that stress (or other drivers for a hypothyroid state) can promote hypochlorhydria and/or malabsorption of nutrients, so addressing these dynamics could also support a reversal. An ongoing stressful state can also deplete tyrosine by requiring higher synthesis of stimulatory neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine) which are made of tyrosine. This may be of interest: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2938584/ .
Chronic stress and other autoimmune risk factors (e.g. enhanced intestinal permeability) may also play a role in early graying by promoting vitiligo which is an auto-immune-driven depigmentation of external cells in general (though typically observed on the skin vs. the hair). In vitiligo, there is autoimmune damage to catalase.
You may also have overtly addressed an excessive oxidative stress load in your body, perhaps via a better balance of omega-3/omega-6 fatty acids? Or supporting your body to better produce glutathione (e.g. optimizing methylation, adequate selenium)? Or perhaps you stopped a lifestyle habit that was promoting oxidative damage (e.g. smoking, toxic exposure)? Or finally resolved a gut dysbiosis/pathogen that was impairing nutrient absorption and perhaps exacerbating intestinal permeability (and making you immune system more hypervigilant)?
Speaking of vitiligo, an autoimmune reaction and also oxidative damage to melanocytes play key roles. That is, not enough antioxidant capability to manage the oxidative stress encountered. Genetics can be involved too in terms of lowered antioxidant capability, esp. production of an enzyme called catalase. In particular, those with vitiligo have lower catalase in the skin which means their ability to prevent free radical damage and manage high levels of peroxide is impaired. Build-up of these oxidant agents prevents normal melanin production. Hence loss of skin pigment (Fascinating, huh!?). So yes, those with vitiligo have a special vulnerability. For this reason, excessive intake of some “antioxidant plant extracts” can be counterproductive, such as curcumin, which in high doses has a pro-oxidant effect (which is what gives them their anti-cancer capability).